The Rose and the Yew Tree

Hugh Norreys’s quiet life is interrupted when a foreign woman insists on seeing him. She ignores his dismay and manages to persuade him to come with her.

Lying on his deathbed, John Gabriel is a shadow to his own self. But the past has cast a long shadow over him and Norreys since their last encounter in Zagrade. Since Norreys saw him and Isabella Charteris together.

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My tatty copy. ISBN:0-440-17503-8

When the book was published in January 1948, London hardly recovered from the wounds of the War. The cold winds of harsh winter were still blowing hard, her inhabitants impoverished. Meanwhile, Clement Attle’s government had set the nationalisation and the welfare state  in motion and officiated the formation of the National Health Service (NHS) – Early Years in the summNotes On Peril At End Houseer.

 

Over two years earlier Labour won its greatest majority in history. The watershed election held on 5th July 1945 heralded windswept changes in British politics.

Upon this backdrop Westmacott plotted a tempestuous period in the weeks leading to the polling day in a Conservative stronghold. In St. Loo, no less.

Arthur Hastings in Peril At End House describes the imaginary setting at the beginning of the novel as ‘no seaside town in the south of England is, I think, as attractive as St. Loo. It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera…’ However, in Westmacott’s world there are no dead bodies. Instead Hugh Norreys the narrator commences with his recollections seeing a dying man; a man of whom he’s banished from memory.

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Little Gidding church in Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire, UK. T.S. Eliot visited in 1936 and named the last of his Four Quartets after the village. Image by Simon Kershaw.

 

We die with the dying;

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead; See, they return, and bring us  with them.

 

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree are of equal duration.

A people without history 

Is not redeemed from time; for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments. So while the light fails

On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England.

   Westmacott based her title on a line in  Eliot’s concluding part of his The Four Quartets. The church in which the poet sat in reflection after a long walk is a home of an Anglican community established by Nicholas Ferrar in 17th century. The religious history of it might have inspired Eliot  and yet it was the comfort the poem had offered that might have given Westmacott a suitable plot.

    Thus ‘we die with the dying…’ depicts a scene in which Gabriel tells Norreys as to what happened in Zagrade. The urgency of a closure before a soul leaves the world is the highlight and the subsequent lines ‘ we are born with the dead….’  are translated in  Norreys’ journey to ponder over an eventful summer in a Cornish town.

Smokes were still palpable in English towns and cities when Little Gidding was printed in 1942; desperation and demise were palpable, if not compelling in the aftermath of Luftwaffe bombings. Westmacott understood this very well;  the droning sounds of the bombers and their dull thudding noises before hitting the ground had remained in her. So had Eliot. So had their generation.

Westmacott’s take on the poem sees Norreys lives to tell the paths he, Gabriel and Isabella have trodden.

‘We all start out as the central figure of our own story. Later we wonder, doubt, get confused. So it has been with me. First it was my story. Then I thought it was Jennifer and I together – Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Iseult. And then, in my darkness and disillusionment, Isabella sailed across my vision like the moon on a dark night. She became the central theme of the embroidery, and I – I was the cross-stitch background – no more. No more, but also no less, for without the drab background, the pattern will not stand out.

    Now, again, the pattern has shifted. This is not my story, not Isabella’s story. It is the story of John Gabriel.

    The story ends here, where I am beginning it. It ends with John Gabriel. But it also begins here.’

It fascinated me as to why such solemn a mood of the poem would befit for a romance.  Initially, this oddity was confusing. The War was over; shouldn’t she moved on?  I put the book aside and reminded myself that I had belonged to a generation that  experienced nothing like the war years. Then I let the story settle in my head and the lines from Little Gidding filled the gap.

It took me longer than I should to discern the beautiful metaphors with vivid imageries of England in four seasons and at the same time to attempt to understand more Eliot’s religious references in them. In particular his  change of tone – a far cry from The Wasteland- about the War and the suffering. It resulted in my learning to living in a moment; that one’s perception of  longevity or brevity is unique. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

 

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A carricature in Daily Mirror on 5th June 1945 picturing a wounded VE-day soldier clutching a paper ‘Victory and Peace in Europe’ 

  As her nom-de-plume, Agatha Christie took the liberty of flexing her interest in postwar politics. On the one hand the clash of classes is discussed; a man with no title and social standing being contrasted to a young educated girl brought up in a castle.  On the other is political gossips and local rumours and their ruminations that in Norreys’ elaborations represent the shifting mood of a nation still clutching at straws.

 

 

The distinct voice in Norreys makes him an active participant that J. Larraby in Unfinished Portrait shares only little. Despite both are disabled people and being positioned as an outsider, Larraby is  reluctant and somewhat unreliable.

What’s more, Norreys isn’t as shy as he would like to think about himself and being confined in a wheelchair can be his biggest advantage. He mingles well with the figures in the traditional community which perceives his presence as an intrusion to their privacy. People come up to him to discuss and to confide. He listens to them.

For Gabriel ‘the fire’ it’s the opposite. He’s ruthless and ambitious; his plain features are compensated by his public speaking skills. His record is also incontestable: a crippled war hero and a recipient of Victoria Cross. But the community is divided when a scandal occurs to the (controversial) Conservative candidate days before the casting of the votes.

“That’s one reason why I’m optimistic about Gabriel,’ he [Captain Carslake] said. “He gets on with women.”  

  “But not with Lady St. Loo?”

  Lady St. Loo, Carslake said was being very good about it…She acknowledged quite frankly that she was old fashioned. But she was whole-heartedly behind whatever the [Conservative] Party thought unnecessarily.

  “After all,” said Carslake sadly, “times have changed. We used to have gentlemen in politics. Precious few of them now. I wish this chap was a gentleman, but he isn’t, and there it is. If you can’t have a gentleman, I suppose a hero is the next best thing.”

  Which, I [Hugh Norreys] remarked to Teresa after he had left, was practically an epigram.

As for the orphan beauty Isabella, Westmacott deploys her signature of inverse proposition for her inimitable characters. Her demure behaviour defies her intelligent mind and her dreamy countenance belies her matter-of-fact attitude. These traits surprise and enthrals Norreys; just as the sweet Louise Ledner (Murder in Mesopotamia), Lynn Marchmont (Taken at the Flood) and Sophia Leonides (Crooked House) would do. Nevertheless, these women do not always carry a wise head on their shoulders; each of them has taken some poor decisions that bear damning consequences to the people they care.

 “You think Isabella is a kind of female Fortinbras?” I [Norreys] asked smiling. Teresa smiled too.

   “Not so warlike. But direct of purpose and entirely single-minded. She would never ask herself, ‘why am I like I am? What do I really feel?’ She knows what she feels and she is what she is.” Teresa added softly, “and she will do – what she has to do.”

  “You mean she is fatalistic?”

  “No. But for her I do not think there are ever alternatives. She will never see two possible courses of action- only one. And she will never think of retracing her steps, she will always go on. There’s no backward way for the Isabellas…’

Last but not least, it would be interesting to find out  whether Eliot read the book and his thoughts about it. What made him choose to compar the yew-tree, an evergreen conifer that is native to England to rose, a non-native plant immortalised in the War of the Roses?  Or would a rose have been simply a symbol of beauty, transience and love whilst the long-lived tree a symbol of death and life?

Did they matter? Even if he didn’t peruse the little known book, I’d say Christie was a fan of his.

Finally, I’m bowing out with a paragraph in Three Things About Elsie:

I honestly believe that every person we meet alters us in some way. From the smallest encounter, to a life-long friendship, we are always changed by those who pass through our lives, even if they only walk with us for a short time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Unfinished Portrait

Rebecca Rouillard, the winner of Mslexia’s Novel Competition 2017, writes her first novel about her childhood as a white girl in South Africa. ‘Who’s going to read it?’ she thought, believing there would be little market for it. Her winning novel, however, is her attempt for another one; a story of a brother and sister living in a lighthouse – their parents absent.

The theme of childhood is an intriguing one; yet grappling with minutiae details authors are required to  thread their way of presenting them as a fiction. Rouillard may have a point; a number of debut novels is semi-autobiographical.  Their scenes and settings derive from either personal traumas or reflections; reminiscences or deep-seated memories.

unfinishedportrait_agathachristieMeet and Celia J. Larraby. One is a woman on a crossroads in her life and the other is a portrait artist before he lost his hands in the Great War. Both are on holiday – for respective reasons. Their encounter trigger sharing a night together, although far from the inclination to enjoy the pleasure of the flesh between them.

Mary Westmacott is not a name muttered in the highbrow circles of literature. Her first book, Giant’s Bread, comes out four years earlier in 1930; the number of the copies sold are likely to have been modest despite the good reviews. By the same token, her second novel about a thirty-nine-year-old protagonist with a sense of an ending would have drawn little fanfare in its wake; what with the unrivalled success Murder on the Orient Express . It might have been a much more exciting tale than a limbless man listening to a rumbling  childhood stories from an opposite sex with low self efficacy.

What goes on without a bang could actually generate a louder noise. Only a handful people are willing to say the other name of Westmacott towards the thinly-disguised story on the state of mind of a household name whom eleven days of disappearance has been engulfed in mystery. Still an enigma, Agatha Christie neither explains nor clarify the rumours surrounding her breakdown until her last breath.

Unfinished Portrait opens with a Foreword. Sometime after meeting Celia Larraby writes a letter to Mary. It’s accompanied by a manuscript; his take on Celia’s story. Would his bulk of words, being judged as poor in terms of writing techniques, be possible to ‘see the light of day’? Larraby seems to trust Mary’s  judgements on the matter – should she wish to alter some parts so it would be fit for publication.

A fan of Freud’s psychoanalysis theory, Christie has deployed the pyschoanalyst’s The Ego and the Id – Sigmund Freud essay– Das ich un das Es in German- in her depicting her characters and particularly in her analyses of the perpetrators. In writing under her pseudo name she also has applied the same principles;  Celia is the Id – the unconscious thoughts and J.Larraby the Ego – the preconscious that blends the unconscious and the conscious. Consequently, Mary becomes the super-ego. In her hands the edited version of the Id and the Ego are conjured.

As many would have been aware, Freud’s theory is flawed due to the extreme difficulty to gain an exact understanding on the significance between the Id or the Ego. Which one that  is more in determining people’s behaviour?

Christie’s unwavering support to the three-tiered of human’s mind nevertheless is apparent; in the book she’s positioned Mary as an agent and a listener whilst Larraby is a mere messenger to the supposedly true account of events. As a narrator he’s felt the pulling of a string  in a balancing act between his cognitive realisation about his subject and his drive to give Celia a fair representation.

Having given each of them a respective role, Christie allows herself to detach from either Mary, Larraby or Celia. As a result, their voices are distinct. Mary can neither be Celia nor can Larraby know everything about Celia. But he has sufficient details about her. Moreover, what does it matter if Celia only exists in his imagination?

Christie’s approach isn’t unheard of; her blurring the lines and her ‘splitting’ herself in the characters make the seemingly an ordinary unrequited love tale have layers of subplots. On the one hand, explanations are due on her part in order to stop the speculations and on the other she must spare some very personal details that known to her and for her only.

  It’s an odd question, when you come to think of it, the things we choose to remember. For choice there must be, make it as unconscious as you like. Think back yourself- take any year of your childhood. You will remember perhaps five-six incidents. They weren’t important, probably; why have you remembered them out of those three hundred and sixty-five days? Some of them didn’t even mean much to you at the time. And yet, somehow, they’ve persisted…. 

The above excerpt of Larraby’s words to Mary sounds whimsical. Bearing in mind he isn’t soundly equipped as a writer, his somewhat rambling phrases might be justifiable. Fortunately there’s Mary – a good friend?- who would not just bin the manuscript right away; the fact that Louillard has had an insight before sending out her first novel to an agent.

Perusing the book can be likened to a meal made in a slow cooker. Christie as a cook seems to have thrown in the ingredients from the depth of her memories and in the meantime lets its gradual pace mature in the hours that require. As a reader, however, the slothful process of ploughing through to reach the end can be unattractive. After the high notes on Vernon Deyre in Giant’s Bread, J. Larraby plays no encore in Westmacott’s repertoire.

Whether Larraby’s visceral emotions and his poorly constructed narratives are deliberate, Christie has chosen her way to release her version of events through Celia’s confidence in a stranger. For Larraby has never seen her again after the night; the key fact that might score in Mary’s bringing it forward.

Be that as it may, the care in the aspects of a novel is ostensible. Christie ensures that Larraby’s viewpoints are properly challenged by Celia’s admissions concerning the battle with faults in herself. If anything, the book is soul-searching; there’s a touch of raw honesty in her pondering over her part in the failure of her marriage and as far as her mother’s dominance over her are concerned.

Be it unfinished, it’s a portrait after all. Whatever details that have been omitted  underline Christie’s determination to take control of her privacy.

Last but not least, Louillard might wish to reconsider submitting her first novel; just as Winnie M. Lie’s Dark Chapter has done. No rush.

 

Absent In The Spring

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Year of Publication: 1944

Motive for Murder: None

Plot:

Tell Abu Hamid, November 1936. Joan Scudamore has missed her train connection to Stanboul. Being stuck in a remote rest house, she is faced with unprecedented circumstances which delays her return to London.

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1944’s the US book jacket ofFarrar and Rinehart NY.

Two days turn four; the wadi flood has rendered the rail tracks impassable. Breathing the healing air of the Syrian desert, she finds herself rejuvenated in the serene surroundings. Her mind begins to recollect the past events; the words of an old school friend she has bumped into at Baghdad are playing reels of reminiscences in her head.  To her astonishment subconscious thoughts surge forward, which lead to her asking herself questions she has never done before.

Did she a devoted wife to Rodney, a dedicated mother to Averil, Tony and Barbara and a good person she had believed?

Highlights:

 

From you I have been absent in the spring

When proud-piep April, dressed in all his trim,

Hath put a spirit of youth in everything

That heavy Saturn laughed and leapt with him

                                                                                                            -Sonnet 98

As Mary Westmacott, Christie cherishes her departure from crime novels. Her fascination about self and the complexity of human mind are the two passions she’s been able to explore under the pseudo name.

For twenty years her other identity is scarcely recognised – even by her ardent fans. For twenty years the six so-called romance books has gained modest successes. Her observation about class and love and changing times in society are woven into the dynamics in self by nurture and through distinctive experience.

Absent In The Spring is the third book published during the War.  She finished it in three days straight, of which it has given her such immense pleasure in its process. The manuscript then went to print as it was – as she wished.

In this long monologue of a country lawyer’s wife Christie puts aside her usual style of storytelling. Joan’s self dialogues during her five days’ wait in the lovely warm November sun hardly scratch the surface with the afore-mentioned Shakespeare’s Sonnet.

When Blanche Haggard recognises her school friend at the girls’ boarding school St. Anne’s, her cry ‘holy Moses, it’s Joan!’ is genuine. Off all places; thousands of miles away from the good old England is a face she hasn’t seen for fifteen years. On the other hand, Joan has noticed the girl she once adored first, but has chosen to study her instead.

In portraying the two contrasting personalities – Blanche the carefree, Joan the obliging- through exchanges and remarks, Christie is outlining the ‘picture’ of her protagonist. On the one hand, Joan’s civil responses is the opposite to Blanche’s careless comments about Rodney ‘having a roving eye’ and Barbara ‘too young to be married’ in which Blanche’s insinuating that the young woman did so to get away from home. On the other hand, in spite of Joan’s feeling offended to the other,  Blanche’s words set in motion the train of thoughts which persist to continue as they part the next day.

In the subsequent chapters Christie invites her readers to ‘splash some colours’ to Joan. Her mind wandering might be rather unexciting for the first half of the story. Nonetheless, as her seemingly rose-tinted life begins to reveal some cracks, the random collections begin to make sense.  Did Rodney miss her? Or was he happy to see her go away? Did Barbara want her mother to come to Baghdad to help her convalesce?

Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell

   Of different flow’rs in odor and in hue

  Could make me any summer’s story to tell,

          Or from their proud  lap pluck them where they grew

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Joan Scudamore lays yellow chrysanthemums on Leslie Rodston’s grave. They  means neglected love or sorrow. The Victorian language of flowers are used in the story to convey the truth of a matter.   

Joan’s torrents of flashbacks take an unexpected turn, just as a sonnet alters after the eighth line. In the accidental company of an Indian servant whom serves her meals and drinks, his simple take on life makes her rethink her self image. Their limited exchange of words expresses a gentle phase of change in her through him; her perceived ideas on how to live a life becomes reconstructed. She questions whether leading a busy life actually an antidote to happiness.

Blanche and the Indian man are like pistons that runs the engine; more than minor characters. Then the advice of Miss Gilbey, the headteacher of St. Anne’s, when she left school, runs in her head: ‘think of others, my dear and not too much of yourself.’

The moment Joan admits the flaws in her judgements; the decisions she’s made as to what’s best for her family, another crack – much bigger than the previous ones- emerge: Rodney’s nonchalant attitude over the years and her marriage that has gone amiss. For quite sometime. As she turns her focus in the aftermath of Rodney’s breakdown, she sees her life differently.

 Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white

Nor praise the deep vermillion in the rose,

They were but sweet, but figures of delight,

    Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.

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Rodney Scudamore is spotted by his wife wearing red rhododendrons on his lapel – the spring flowering species- in the churchyard.  An interesting substitute to ‘the deep vermillion in rose’ in the sonnet, for rhododendron means ‘rose’ and ‘tree’ in ancient Greek  

In a twist for which Christie has been famous, her clever use of the sonnet for her euphemism to a late-flowering affection is apparent. Joan has worked out herself and declares defeat.

Thus, this is not a story of a woman having an epiphany in her solitude. This is a story of a spectator to an unconsummated love, born from the shared interest in which Joan has no part.  The last proud-pied April comes before the devastating May that marks the other woman’s passing.

Yet it seemed it winter still, and,

You away,

As with your shadow I with these did play

Alas, Joan is the Saturn; the winter in Near Eastern that is ‘moving’ towards England. Yet she carries the shadow of the love little did she realise flourish for years under her very eye.

P.S. If any displeasure can be highlighted is the fact that the Baghdad Railway was completed in 1940. Thus, there couldn’t be any trains running beyond Mosul in 1936. Also, Tell Abu Hamid is a small-populated town in the district of ash-Sharqiyah in Egypt (in the eastern side of Jordan valley) and not in Syria as suggested.

Flaming June

Paintings in Christie’s books are a subject still being scarcely discussed. Her great interest in the revival of Victorian paintings occurred long before Jeremy Maas published Victorian Painters and Sir John Betjeman led a campaign to protect the crumbling Victorian buildings.

As the Impressionists rise to fame, the lights extinguish for Victorian art. Having been perceived as prudish and encouraged conformity, a number of Victorian masterpieces become abandoned and forgotten.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you, my dears – you, Raymond and you, Joan about the rather curious little business that happened some years ago now. I don’t want to seem vain in any way – of course I know in comparison with you young people I am not clever at all – Raymond writes those very modern books all about rather unpleasant young men and women – and Joan paints those very remarkable pictures of square people with curious bulges on them – very clever of you, my dear, but as Raymond always says (only quite kindly, because he is the kindest of nephews) I am hopelessly Victorian. I admire Mr Alma-Tadema and Mr Frederick Leighton and I suppose to you they seem hopelessly vieux jeu. Now let me see, what was I saying?

The opening of Miss Marple Tells A Story (in Miss Marple’s Final Cases) names two renowned but under-celebrated painters whose genius works regain their much-deserved credits a centenary later.

My impression of Flaming June was the striking pose of the woman in a saffron-coloured dress. What’s so special about a portrait of a woman in her slumber? Christie might have scolded it me on the spot had I spoken it out aloud.

 

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Frederick Leighton’s last paintings as shown in a private exhibition at Royal Academy of Art in May 1895. His illness prevents him to attend the opening. From left: Candida (submitted but not exhibited), Lachrymae, The Maid With The Golden Hair, ‘Twixt Hope and Fear and Flaming June

Standing at the back of Sir Frederick’s stunning studio where it was displayed, I feel as if I were the man himself staring at his muse napping after a day’s tiring work. While the gilded tabernacle frame enforces the emotion to the painting the flowing material chosen for the dress showcasing beauty and intimacy. She must have been someone special.

I wondered whether Christie had an opportunity to see it in 1930; the last time it was shown to the public in the house. She would’ve been thrilled to had learnt about the accidental icon of Victorian art being reunited with Lachrymae, The Maid With The Golden Hair and ‘Twixt Hope and Fear – just as the way they were when first revealed to the public.

 

 

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A portrait of Dorothy Dene at Sir Frederick’s study at Leighton House

The fascinating story of Flaming June goes beyond its being disappeared until Jeremy Maas bought it for £1,000 from Colonel Frederick Beddington in 1962. A year later Luis A Ferre buys it from Maas for £2,000 . The founder of the Museo de Arte de Ponce gives the neglected jewel its lasting home. The young Andrew Lloyd Weber could have got hold of it, had he not listened to her grandmother’s remark of not having any Victorian junk in her home.

 

Like Christie’s murder mystery, speculations revolve round the model’s identity. Whilst Flaming June came back in 1996 ’s Leighton centenary exhibition a star, the woman in it remains an enigma until 2011.

Following the discovery of the only head study of Flaming June (1894) in West Hosterley Place, now the ‘weary model’ can be confirmed as none other than Dorothy Dene.

 

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The Head Study for Flaming June (1894)

The nineteen-year-old working-class girl from Clapham meets the fifty-year-old son of a physician. Leighton’s grandfather was the primary physician to the Russian royal family in St. Petersburg.

Their class difference holds little of their becoming closer; his introducing her to his art’s circle of friends and advancing her stage career. Their unusual relationship subsequently triggers rumours of their being intimate. Later she lives in a flat not far from Leighton House and is allowed at his dead bed.  He leaves a bequest of £5,000 for her and another £5,000 to set up a trust fund to help her siblings. Dene dies at the age of forty in 1900.

 

Both never marry despite the witnessed affection between them. Either he might have been just a father figure to her or he thought he had been too old to be her husband. Whatever the story is, they remind me of Boyd Barrington and Barbara Franklyn in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. The former is a bachelor with a high social standing and the latter a scientist’s wife to whom Barrington has known since she was seventeen. Their spending summer at Styles –now a guest house running by the Lutrells- surge old memories and inevitably the old feelings.

I bid goodbye to Leighton House with lingering thoughts about Sir Frederick and Dorothy Dene. Theirs are a book to write.

 

Reference:

-Flaming June: The Making of an Icon. Leighton House Museum (4 November 2016 – 2 April 2017)

Notes on Miss Marple’s Final Cases

 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Year of Publication: 1979

Motive for Murder: wealth and revenge

 

Plot:

1.Sanctuary: Bunch opens the church to find a dying man at the altar. He mumbles his last word sanctuary and the other that sounds like her husband’s name: Julian, the vicar. When a man and a woman turn up and claim the deceased as their brother, Bunch starts to smell a rotten business in the stranger’s death. Particularly, they insist to take his shabby coat which is stained with blood as a memento.

 

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Dorchester Abbey in Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire,UK is a filming set for A Murder Is Announced which features Reverend Julian Harmon and his wife Bunch.

2.Strange Jest: The benefactors to Matthew Rossiter’s will Charmian Stroud and Edward Rossiter are running out of time to solve  his late uncle’s riddle. They believe there’s been a buried treasure in Ansteys- the inherited home they love so much. Despite their effort they can’t find it. Being under the pressure to either foot the bill  or sell the property, they turn to Miss Marple for her insights on Victorian idiosyncrasies.

 

3.Tape-Measure Murder: Constable Palk is not supposed to touch anything in a crime scene. Yet he’s picked up a pin on his uniform, having come first to the crime scene. Mrs. Spenlow has been strangled in her home dressed in a kimono.Yet, as the saying goes: ‘see a pin and pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck.’

4.The Case of the Caretaker: Harry Laxton comes back to his village a wealthy man. The prodigal son of Major Laxton has bought the Kingsdean estate where he spent his boyhood and rebuilt the house after his marriage to Louise, a rich Anglo-French woman. An orphan with considerable fortune, her happiness is put to a test when Mrs. Murgatroyd, the widow of the former caretaker whom lives in a corner of the estate threatens the other. Not long afterwards Louise falls off her horse and never regains consciousness.

5.The Case of the Perfect Maid: St. Mary Mead is buzzing with the enviable Mary Higgins. The Skinner sisters’ perfect maid is everybody’s dream. Is it too good to be true? Miss Marple visit them to find out more.

6.Miss Marple Tells a Story: An old friend, Mr. Petherick, comes with his client to consult the sleuth about Mr. Rhoderick’s case. For he’s been suspected to have stabbed his wife in her bed while they were staying at the Crown Hotel in Barnchester. What would she suggest the solicitor regarding the line of defence in the court?

7.The Dressmaker’s Doll: Alicia Coombe announces to her staff that she has given up the

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Who  is the man in the mir

use of the fitting-room. Nobody hesitates that the decision may come from a menacing-look puppet doll of the dressmaker that seems to occupy the place. Feeling the continual terrors of it, Alicia feels compelled in the end to throw it away. Despite her relief, will it stop bothering her?

 

8.In A Glass Darkly: On his best friend’s invitation a young man stays over at his home Badgeworthy. There he meets the other’s sister Sylvia Carslake and her fiancée Charles Crawley. To his horror, the man happens to see in  the mirror Sylvia’s being strangled in her bed by Crawley.

 

Highlights:

Published posthumously, the six stories of Jane Marple’s show the unwavering wits of Christie’s.  As for the two other stories, The Dressmaker’s Doll and In A Glass Darkly, their inclusion I believe has suggested their having been discovered with the others after Christie’s death in 1976. Other unknown short stories  emerge later on in Greenways;  While The Light Lasts and Problems At Pollensa Bay were released in 1990s.

In 2013 I bought a second-hand copy of 2002’s signature edition. In it there was another short story, A Greenshaw’s Folly. Two years later, however, I happened to get hold some 2006’s facsimile edition in crisp condition a National Trust second-hand bookshop. Interestingly, it does not contain Miss Marple’s finding the murder of Miss Greenshaw.

Having studied about Agatha Christie’s writings in the last four years, I have established a fair assumption that she might have written some at the same time; be they a scene of a play here and details for a short story there. In the meantime, she might have re-read her previously published books and therefore a subplot would have had a new lease of life with different character names and setting.

 

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Bunch puts down the Chrysanthemums she has brought for the church to come closer to a huddled body on the chancel steps

Her ‘recycling’ a setting with a different twist for the plot is noticeable in this collection, too. First, Sanctuary featuring Reverend Julian Harmons and his wife Bunch will jog readers’ minds to A Murder Is Announced (1950). In the novel Bunch is acquainted with Miss Marple, whilst her curious nature in the short story makes her go for a day to meet the sleuth who stays at West’s home in London. It’s likely Tape-Measure Murder might have been drafted right after, punctuated by the naming of Laburnam Cottage in both stories.

 

During the writing, I supposed Christie was aware that she couldn’t omit the trio chief gossipers of St. Mary Mead. Nor should she have put them together in a piece. Hence in Tape-Measure Murder Miss Hartnell lives next to the victim Mrs. Spenlow; Miss Wetherby has her turn to further announce to the world about Lavinia Skinner’s accusing her maid Gladys to have stolen her jewellery and Miss Harmon is in the chemist when Harry Laxton introduces his wife Louise to Bella, his ex-girlfriend and the chemist’s daughter.

Next, there is a main theme running in the stories: jewellery robbery. In the difficult times between the two wars and post-second world war, crimes did occur to gain access to the valuables. With her craft Christie depicts the hardship which continued to engulf the UK right until in the sixties. The plot for At Bertram’s Hotel is based on The Great Train Robbery in 1963.

 

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Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson

Christie is adept to a matter close to heart to many of her readers: the ongoing problems of domestic worker issue. I wonder what would have been her opinions about of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day and The Diary of A Provincial Woman, as the books share the same clinging-on sense of the tradition whilst at the same time they are aware of their financial constraint and labour shortage. Notwithstanding whether Christie had read the two books, she herself ‘empowers’ the likes of Gladys et all as a minor character with various roles. More importantly, Christie seems to stress that some maids may have more than meet the eye.

 

Christie brings in Doctor Haydock for The Case of The Caretaker suggests the possibility of Christie’s working on Sleeping Murder, too. In the former, he infers the murder of Louisa Haxton in his note to the sleuth. In the latter, it is Miss Marple who begs to prescribe him for a trip to a seaside to help Gwenda Halliday.

By the same token is the re-appearance of Mr. Petherick the solicitor (see also The Thirteen Problems). Perhaps it’s the same ‘madness’ to his clients to see a silver-haired woman and furthermore to consult her about the case. Mr. Rhoderick is unconvinced as to how Miss Marple’s twinkling eyes can drop a murder charge looming over him.

But Mr. Petherick himself utters to his old friend: ‘In a case of illness one likes two points of views – that of the specialist and that of the family physician. It is the fashion to regard the former as of more value, but I am not sure that I agree. The specialist has experience only in his own subject; the family doctor has, perhaps, less knowledge – but a wider experience.

In the absence of Miss Marple in the last two stories, Christie puts a stress on the pertaining sense of mystery which parallels to the story theme in The Hound of Death (1932). Her exploration into the unexplained occurrences and baffling phenomena underlines what her contemporaries try to grasp owing to the shocking  change of Europe’s political map and the global economy crises.

Lastly, it’s pitiful but understandable that Christie could be audacious in her dialogues but still adheres to the golden rule of  fiction as an escape. By shifting fears to uncertain future to objects, ie. a mirror and a lively-looking velvet doll she is being non-judgmental to things that might terror people’s mind.

Thus Alicia Coombe can loose her battle  against her illogical thoughts and the male narrator succumbs to the imagery in the mirror. In her frustration Alicia tries to persuade a girl to give the doll back to her and her refusal to do so is then summed up by Alicia’s talking to herself in the last sentence : ‘perhaps…perhaps that’s what she wanted all along… to be loved….’ All of a sudden I felt sympathy to her.

Be that as it may, it beats not In A Glass Darkly. The unnamed narrator takes readers to the summer 1914; the timing being a focal point. It’s universally acknowledged as the last happy memory for Christie’s generation; the great calamity in the Great War is then repeated in the Second World War.

The premonition he sees in the mirror along with the sombre mood of a survivor’s guilt are conspicuous. Did he know who he was afterwards? Can he trust his judgment? Finally, Sylvia’s polite response on his telling her what he’s seen the other day that leaves a lingering thought: ‘I’m sure you did if you say so. I believe you.’

What do you think?

 

Cast of Characters:

In Sanctuary:

-Police Constable Abel

-Inspector Craddock

-The Eccless (husband and wife, claiming to be the deceased’s family)

-Edwin Moss (who takes Bunch’s suitcase)

-The Harmons (Reverend Julian and his wife Diana,a.k.a. Bunch)

 

In Strange Jest:

-Charmian Stroud

-Edward Rossiter

– Jane Helier (Charmian and Edward’s friend)

 

In Tape-Measure Murder:

-Miss Hartnell

-Colonel Melchett (the chief constable of St. Mary Mead)

-Miss Pollit (a dressmaker)

-Constable Palk (who comes to a crime scene the first time)

-Inspector Slack

 

In The Case of The Caretaker:

-Miss Bell

-Clarice Vane (Doctor Haddock’s niece, Louise’s friend)

-Doctor Haddock

-Miss Harmon

-Mrs. Murgatroyd (lives in a corner of the Kingsdean estate)

-the Laxtons (Harry and his wife Louisa who live in Kingsdean)

 

In The Case of The Perfect Maid:249824

-Edna (Miss Marple’s maid and Gladys’s cousin)

-Mary Higgins (the perfect maid)

-Colonel Melchett (the chief constable)

-The Skinner sisters (Lavinia and Emily)

-Inspector Slack

-Miss Wetherby

 

In Miss Marple Tells A Story:

-Mrs. Carruthers ( a hotel’s guest)

-Mrs Granby (a hotel’s guest)

-Mr. Petherick (a solicitor preparing for the case, Miss Marple’s friend)

-Mr. Rhodes (Mr. Petherick’s client)

 

In The Dressmaker’s Doll:

-Alicia Coombe (a dressmaker)

-Mrs. Fellows-Brown (Alicia’s client who tries on a dress)

-Mrs. Fox ( the cleaner)

-Sybil Fox (Alicia’s assistant)

 

In A Glass Darkly:

-Sylvia Carslake

-The narrator (Sylvia’s husband)

 

 

 

Notes on The Moving Finger

Rate: 4 out of five

Year of Publication: 1943

Motive for Murder: Greed

 

Plot:

In a sleepy Lymstock, nothing untoward happened. Peace was the norm in the idyllic village: no wars, no bombs.  Until the first murder occurred.  The Symmingtons’ housemaid body was found cold in the downstairs’ cupboard with a blunt force trauma in her head. A week beforehand, Mona Symmington committe suicide.

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Chilham village in Kent, the filming location for fictitious Lymstock in 2006’s adaptation of Miss Marple series.

 

Anonymous hate letters had circulated, as the poison pen  spread scare among the villagers. Despite their being defiant about the letters, fears and anxiety increased being a target of abhorrent accusations.

In the meantime, Megan Hunter saw something on the day her mother died. A young girl of twenty, she was often seen wandering round the village either in her bike or on foot. Aimee Griffith disliked her idleness, whereas some had sympathy to the girl whose mother paid little attention to her.

She saw something she wasn’t supposed to see. As she realised what would happen next, it was nobody but her who could prevent it become materialised. Could she trust herself to take a high risk to save her life and others?

 

Highlights:

In today’s social media age, the tales of fake news and rampant finger pointing are ubiquitous; the internet trolls that spewed poisonous comments then propelled an issue to a much larger scale and onto a different level.

The devastating impact of hoaxes had also left imprints in Christie’s world; Elinor Carlisle receiving spiteful letters after her engagement in Sad Cypress(1940) and Dr. Charles Odfield asking for Poirot’s help to clear his name due to rumours about his poisoning his late wife in the Labours of Hercules (1947). If vile letters were exist in those books to flavour to a plot, in The Moving Finger the issue became the epitome of an abuse in words.

From the onset Christie put forward the various effects of libels for their respective recipients. To the brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton, such was an expression of alienation to foreigners that strengthens the villagers’ watchful glance towards them and their quiet sighing to their cosmopolitan behaviour. To Dick Symmington the solicitor, his reputation, having only opened his practice for a few years, was at stake.

Supposed the book was a blank painting canvass,  Christie then had morphed it into a Jackson Pollock ; the dialogues were the outpourings of characters’ mind while delivering blatant criticism on society.

I have noticed that the books Christie had written during the War may carry the homogenous spirit of being bold and fearless about life. They expose the worst in human’s nature that leave pins and needles sensations in their wake.

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London Children during The Blitz 1940

 

As far as I am concerned, Christie stayed put in London during the War. Her decision was made mainly because of her daughter, Rosalind Hick, whose first husband Hubert de Burgh Pritchard was on an active service an died in 1944.

Come what may, the book touched nothing about the War, although the apparent distress which engulfed Lymstock might have mirrored the uncertainty of the War. Clearly Christie banned any mention of it, but turned the sky of ostensibly picture-perfect setting of the countryside into a cloud of vultures circling an area where a carcass of crime is identifiable and the smell of it inevitable.

Enter the young village doctor Owen Griffith and the orphan Megan Hunter. Together with the Burtons Christie spun the plot around the four of them. Jerry seemed to be an extrovert version of Colonel Hastings; Joanna’s carefree attitude paralleled to Giselda Clement (Murder At The Vicarage) and Dr. Griffith might have been Dr. James Sheppard – only younger and more handsome.

As circumstances altered and characters changed, attention turned into Aimee Griffith, Owen’s older sister.  A semblance to Catherine Sheppard, Aimee was atypical spinster character in other books (see more on The Most Fascinating Character). Likewise, Mona Symmington could be likened to Mrs Ferrars (see Notes On The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).  By the same token, Mr. Ackroyd’s housekeeper Miss Russel had the same traits to Mrs Cane de Althorp  – their detecting ‘bad smell’ in people.

The plot saw Christie’s  marvelling at putting the right dose between feeding excitement and inducing sinister sentiments. Clues dropped in unexpected situations obscured in an ambiguous tone. Whilst it could be quite confusing at times, her sticking to Jerry’s viewpoint held together the loose ends.

As expected, the subplots bore comparable details in her previous books. Nonetheless,  it takes a skilful writer with tricks up her sleeves to pinch a detail and combine it with others to create an entirely different setting. Halfway  I felt I could guess whodunit although I realised that the theatrical touch in it would only make sense as I turned to the last chapter.

Miss Marple remained behind the screen until the last five thousand words.  Meanwhile, some readers might have asked themselves whether the Burtons had been a one-off Tommy and Tuppence. Only in the end it explained the police’s involving Jerry in the investigation in spite of the fact he was a suspect.

To conclude, it is a Miss Marple book that deserves more recognition among Christie’s fans. It’s more than the craft of the plot, but a study of point of views: have we seen an issue in a bigger picture?

 

The Twists:

-Dick Symmington donated his old typewriter to the Women’s Institute

-Megan Hunter’s father was imprisoned for blackmail

-Aimee Griffith wrote the anonymous letter to Elsie Holland

– Joanna Burton received a hate letter that was intended for Emily Barton

– Mrs Dane Calthrop roped in help from an old friend: Miss Marple

– Emily Barton’s prayer book with ripped pages used by the Poison Pen in different anonymous letters was found in the Symmingtons’ downstairs cupboards

 

Cast of Characters:

– Mrs. Baker (Beatrice’s mum; Beatrice a housemaid at Little Furze)

– The Burtons (Joanna and Jerry)

– The Dane Calthrops (Reverend Caleb and his wife)

– Elsie Holland (a governess at the Symmingtons)

– Emily Barton (whose house Little Furze was rented out to the Burtons)

– Florence (Miss Barton’s former maid)

– Miss Ginch (Dick Symmington’s secretary in the law office)

– Inspector Graves (Scotland Yard)

– The Griffiths (Owen the village doctor and Aimee who ran girl’s guide)

– Marcus Kent (Jerry Burton’s doctor)

– Megan Hunter (Mona Symmington’s daughter from her first marriage)

– Superintendent Nash

– Partridge (the cook at Little Furze)

– Sergeant Perkins

– Mr Pye (the proud owner of Prior’s Lodge who has a penchant for antiques)

– The Symmingtons (Dick the lawyer and his wife Mona)

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Aimee Griffith

Christie’s crime novels have a number of spinsters in them; from Miss Marple herself to Kirsten Lindstrom (Ordeal by Innocence); from Cecilia Williams (Five Little Pigs) to Nurse Jessie Hopkins (Sad Cypress).

Aimee Griffith is not just another one. In her most renowned book, Christie establishes Dr. Shepepard’s sister’s reputation being a chief gossip in King’s Abbot right from the beginning. On the contrary,  she introduces Aimee as just one of Jerry Burton’s encounters with the villagers without a hint of importance to her role. Her presence is more often due to her access to a typewriter the police have believed being used to type the poisonous letters.

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Jessica Hynes as Aimee Griffith in 2006’s Miss Marple series

 

She disapproves  Megan Hunter; her being the daughter of ‘the wrong un’ To Jerry Burton, Aimee is rather overwhelming. ‘Too much an Amazon for me,’ heremarks to Joanna once.

Unlike other fore-mentioned spinster characters, Aimee is good looking. She is comfortable in her own skin and bold, although she seems to be on guard with words and tends to keep her ideas to herself.

In her absence still there are echoes of her. She argues with Jerry about gender equality with  apparent franknesss. ‘It is incredible to you that women should want a career. It was incredible to my parents. I was anxious to study for a doctor. They would not hear of paying the fees. But they paid them readily for Owen. Yet I should have made a better doctor than my brother.’

The bombshell is then dropped when the police arrest Aimee for sending a warning letter to Elsie Holland. Worse, Aimee has denied having done it. Meanwhile, the police has realised she has held back information about two other suspects.

Things look pessimistic for her. Only Miss Marple who can help squash her charge with a huge favour from Megan.

 

Clues:

Jerry Burton (JB) and Aimee Griffith (AG) (after the inquest on the death of Mona Symmington):

AG; ‘ I was terribly sorry for Dick Symmington its all having to come put as it did at the inquest. It was awful for him.’

JB: ‘But surely you heard him say that there was not a word of truth in that letter – that he was quite sure of that?’

AG: ‘Of course he said so. Quite right. A man’s got to stick up for his wife. Dick would. You see, I’ve known Dick Symmington a long time.’

JB: ‘Really? I understood from your brother that he only bought this practice a few years ago.’

AG: ‘Oh yes, but Dick Symmington used to come and stay in our part of the world up north. I’ve known him for years. I know Dick very well…. He’s a proud man, and very reserved. But he’s the sort of man who could be very jealous.’

JB: ‘That would explain why Mrs. Symmington was afraid to show him or tell him about the letter. She was afraid that, being a jealous man, he might not believe her denials.’

AG: ‘Good Lord. DO you think any woman would go and swallow a lot of cyaniade potassium for an accusation that wasn’t true?’

JB: ‘The coroner seemed to think it was possible. Your brother, too…’

AG: ‘Men are all alike. All for preserving the decencies. But you don’t catch me believing that stuff. If an innocent woman get some foul anonymous letter, she laughs and chucks it away. That’s what I….would do.’

JB: ‘I see. So you’ve had one, too.’

 

Dick Symmington(DS) and Megan Hunter(MH):

MH: ‘I would like to speak to you, please. Alone.’

DS: ‘Well, Megan, what is it? What do you want?’

MH: ‘I want some money.’

DS: ‘Couldn’t you have waited until to-morrow morning? What’s the matter, do you think your allowance is inadequate?’

MH: ‘I want a good deal of money.’

DS: ‘You will come of age in a few months’ time. Then the money left you by your grandmother will be turned over to you by the public trustee.’

MH: ‘ You don’t understand. I want money from you. Nobody’s ever talked to me much about my father. They’ve not wanted me to know about him. But I do know he went to prison and I know why. It was for blackmail!

‘Well, I am his daughter. And perhaps I take after him. Anyway, I am asking you to give me money because… if you don’t….’

The Sinking of Lusitania: Is It All German’s Fault?

‘It was 2 p.m on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed. The women and children were being lined up awaiting their turn. Some still clung desperately to husbands and fathers; others clutched their children closely to their breasts. One girl stood alone, slightly apart from the rest. She was quite young, not more than eighteen. She did not seem afraid, and her grave, steadfast eyes looked straight ahead’   

The Secret Adversary begins with a scene in the aftermath of the shinking liner, in which an American man trusts a stranger, his fellow citizen, with a highly confidential document. Tommy and Tuppence then are involved in the hunt of it, which, if the enemy gets it first, would bring down the incumbent Tory government.

British newspapers condemn the tragedy as ‘The Hun’s Most Ghastly Crime’ and Woodrow Wilson is also quick to state: ‘no warning, that an unlawful and inhumane act will be committed can possibly be accepted as an excuse or palliation of that act.’ Among the deads are 128 Americans.

Likewise, Christie’s aforementioned words are filled with the sentiment against Germans. The pain is still raw  when the book is published in 1922. It is a little wonder the copies have been sold like hot cakes, despite the hardship most people in Britain have experienced in the post-war years.

Over a century later, Saul David, a historian, asks: can the blame be pointed entirely to Germans?

In his article for May’s History magazine he argues that British government should also be held responsible for the loss of 1,198 lives including 94 children (out of 1,959 passengers and crews).

The advertisement on the New York Times on 1st May 1915

On 1st May 1915, the German embassy in Washington D.C. advertises in the New York Times to remind ‘travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage’ that ‘vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or ay of her allies, are liable to destruction’ in the war zone ‘adjacent to the British Isles’ and that any travellers who crossed by such means did so ‘at their own risk.’

1,257 people who have embarked on the Lusitania on the same day from Liverpool ignore it.

Meanwhile, the British Admiralty has issued secret guidelines to merchant skippers: to ‘avoid headlands, near which submarines routinely lurked and found their best hunting’; to steer ‘a mid-channel course’; to operate at ‘full speed’ and to zigzag rather than sail in in a straight line.

Captain William Turner

On 5th May at 10.30 pm The British Admiralty begins to broadcasting a messae at regular intervals to all ships that a U-boat is active in the Irish Channel. Few hours earlier U-20 has sunk a small three-masted schooner off the south coast of Ireland. The next day it sinks two merchant ships off Ireland.

On 6th Mayat 7.52 pm Captain Turner of the Lusitania receives a wireless signal that submarines are ‘active off south coast Ireland.’ Five more warnings are then received.

On 7th May at 8 am he orders the speed to be decreased from 21 to 18 knots, and then to 15 due to the fog.

As the fog is cleared, at 10 am the speed is increased to 18 knots instead of the maximum 21 knots.

At 1 pm the captain orders the fixing of the ship’s position, a laborious process that takes two hours and requires a steady course, constant speed and proximity to land.

At 2.10 pm Kapitanleutnant Scwieger strikes the starboard side of the Lusitania beloow the bridge, causing two explosions.  The Lusitania sinks in 18 minutes.

Kapitantleutnant Walther Schwieger

Watching through his periscope, Schwieger remembers ‘an unusually heavy detonation’ followed by ‘very strong explosion cloud.’ In his diary he writes:

‘The ship stops immediately and quickly heels to starboard, at the same time diving deeper in the bows. She has the appearance of being about to capsize. Great confusion on board, bots being cleared and part lowered to water. They must have lost their heads. Many boats crowded come down bow first or stern first in the water, and immediately fill and sink…Submerge to 24 metres and got to sea. I could not have fired a second torpedo into this throng of humanity attempting to save themselves’ 

If his words are taken into account, is the above prologue possible to occur? Eighteen minutes are very quick from the moment the torpedo hits the ship; there wouldn’t have been enough warning for every passengers, let alone a brief conversation between Jane Finn and Danvers. For Scwieger’s notes imply that 761 survivors are rescued by the boats in the water. And therefore Danvers might have died before he met Finn whilst Finn could not have stood on the ship awaiting the rescue.

Furthermore is the fact that only one torpedo launched. Apologising to the loss of life of the U.S. citizens, the kaiser’s government states that such action is justified in response to the royal Navy’s blockade of the German  coast (causing starvation) and because the Lusitania carries large quantities of war materials in her cargo. The latter is strongly denied  by the British government and its successors.

In 2008  it is confirmed more than 4 million .303 rifle bullets and tons of munitions -shells, powders, fuses and gun cotton- found in ‘unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters.’ Some conclude that these have caused the second explosion, although in 2012 scientific tests at a US government-funded research facility in California challenge the deduction. The second explosion might be a boiler explosion which does not bring about significant damage.

Is Christie a victim of either of a propaganda or trial by the press? What would be her views had she read the contrasting facts?

For all its worth, it has given the desired effect to persuade the American public in favour of the US declaring war on Germany in April 1917.

At the end of the day, it remains that the UK government ought to own up for their part in the unnecessary casualties. As David remarks: ‘A German U-Boat may have fired the fatal shot. But it was British actions that both justified that aggression and helped the torpedo find its mark.’

What do you think?